New look for historic local Seminary

March 17, 2005, midnight | By Karima Tawfik | 16 years, 3 months ago


Centered in the midst of Forest Glen, a series of aging fortress-like buildings known as the National Park Seminary tower over a green landscape. Within the premises, broken glass litters the walkways, gutters hang uselessly from sagging rooftops and graffiti scores the walls of the buildings.

But behind the boarded-up windows and vine-smothered exterior lies a three-story ballroom, large dining room and the remnants of a bowling alley. Speckled across the expansive property are a Japanese pagoda, windmill, chapel and two dozen Victorian-era houses.

Beginning this summer, the construction company FAAorest Glen Venture will transform the National Park Seminary, whose interior has been shut to the public for over a decade, into a residential community of 280 households, including rental and condominium apartments, single-family homes and new townhouses. The Seminary will re-awaken to the sound of drills and hammering as developers renovate the buildings while attempting to preserve the Seminary's rich 120-year history.Ballrooms and army barracks

A narrow, covered porch with feeble white boards hugs the pebble-dash stucco exterior, winding along the crevices of the historic building to the main doorway. Above the stone entrance stairs lie the remnants of an old stained-glass window reading "Ye Forrest Inne," in faded lettering that has remained on the building since its construction in 1887.

During its founding days in the late 19th century, the National Park Seminary was an opulent hotel. Within two decades, the hotel beds were replaced with school desks, and the National Park Seminary was on its way to becoming one of the most prestigious post-secondary women's schools in the nation, offering theater, music and ballroom dance to the local community.

When the U.S. Army invoked the War Powers Act in 1942, the National Park Seminary became the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and for 30 years it rehabilitated veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

The Army built a new medical center in the 1970s, and ever since, the National Park Seminary has been left to wither away in Beltway pollution and neglect.

"Historic treasures"

Junior Jozi Zwerdling has lived down the street from the National Park Seminary her entire life and has grown up exploring the premises with a great admiration for the property. "It's a really magical place. Ever since I was little, it's been a fantasy world for me," she says. "Going there feels like going back in time."

Not all people share Zwerdling's respect for the Seminary. Over the years, several Blazers have regularly broken into the National Park Seminary simply out of curiosity. Senior Lindsey Fowler-Marques has broken in five times, climbing through a small window to explore the historic grounds. "It's all destroyed and old and torn down. There are water leaks, torn-up floors, rusted sections," says Fowler-Marques.

According to Fred Gervasi, President of Save Our Seminary, a non-profit organization located in Forest Glen, the U.S. Army held the property legally until October 2004 but has done little to preserve or protect the site from vandals. "Walter Reed Army Medical Center abandoned [the property] in the sense that they didn't provide good maintenance or security for it," he says.Although Gervasi says it is tempting to enter the mysterious building, he warns against it. "People break in and don't intend to harm anything, but they break historic treasures," he says.

A fire in 1980 burned the Odeon Building, a theater used by the girls' school with Greek Corinthian columns on the exterior and a large proscenium arch bordering the stage, to the ground after either vandals or homeless people broke in and started a fire. All that remains is a desolate three-story wall facing north.

Reemerging and renovating

The abuse of the National Park Seminary has prompted a countywide debate for the past 25 years. This fall, the property transferred from the U.S. Army to Forest Glen Ventures, LLC. "They are going to [renovate] the buildings so that the exterior will look like it did at the time the Army acquired it in 1942," says Gervasi.

The inside, however, will become more modernized. The Chapel will be converted into a two-room apartment. Dorm rooms used in the school will combine into single residences. Elevators will be installed. The ballroom will become community space for activities such as dance and yoga classes.

When Zwerdling learned of the development project, she initially opposed the renovation. "My instinct is, 'Oh my God, don't touch it!'" she says. "But if no one does anything, it'll all fall apart."

Save Our Seminary is in full support of the changes taking place, as development is the only feasible means of maintaining the property, says Gervasi.

Today, the yellow signs labeled "Zoning Request" staked on the outskirts of the property are a reminder of the transformation that will begin six months from now. Behind these signs, the old and worn-out towers of the seminary loom.

Last updated: April 23, 2021, 12:54 p.m.

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